Why We Spoil Our Children
No one wants their kids to be spoiled. I mean that literally. No one. Does even a single person actually say, “I hope my kids are all spoiled, entitled brats.”? Of course not. That’s what grandparents are for. But it’s not grandparents fault so many kids end up that way. The fact that my mom is always buying them new clothes or keeps a closet full of snacks at her house is not what makes them demand someone bring them food on the couch or whine when they have to pick up their own toys or complain about putting their iPad down for five minutes to eat dinner. No, I do that to them. Most parents do, and we do so in a very deliberate, systematic way, because we don’t actually consider what it means to be spoiled or how to prevent it.
No one says they want to spoil their kids. How many parents, though, want their kids to be comfortable? How many want to prevent as much suffering as possible? How many parents want their kids to never go hungry or ever have to deal with the trauma of having less than their friends, if they can help it? All of them? Even those who say they don’t believe that often behave as if they do. I do it all the time. I often think it’s no trouble for me to clean up after my kids’ messes or it’s no big deal to get them a snack right before before bed or it’s not worth the effort to get them to eat just one green bean at dinner. I hate telling them no, which usually just causes more hassle, and frankly, I have enough time and energy and care and money that I never really have to.
Notice how that line of thought turned, though, from what is good and comfortable for them to what is good and comfortable for me. I don’t want them to be comfortable and happy because it makes their life better (it doesn’t) but because it makes my life easier. Giving in to their whims is not about loving them, it’s about getting them to like us, about not making them angry, about reducing the friction involved in any process. We spoil our kids for our own sake and justify our harm with a sentimental affection.
For what is being spoiled if not the inability to suffer even the smallest hardship or to put aside your desires for even the briefest moment? What is being spoiled if not the need to always be comfortable? The way to avoid becoming spoiled is to be uncomfortable, to face challenges, to feel pain, to experience suffering. We need difficulty in our lives. Not because discomfort or pain or suffering are good things, as though it were pleasurable to lose your job or a joy to watch a family member fall ill or a rare treat to eat a salad, but because such trials have a way of clarifying what’s important, of reminding us that our immediate desires are often trivial in comparison, of drawing us out of our inward preoccupations toward concern for the greater world around us, of tearing down our pride and building humility about the limits of our capabilities, of strengthening our perseverance and capacity to ask for help. Suffering, if endured in the right spirit, leads to growth. And that growth is necessary, because suffering will inevitably befall even the richest and luckiest among us at some point, and if we lack the strength to withstand the pressure, even the smallest suffering can break us.
You’ve seen it happen before. This is the kid every parent says they are trying to avoid. The kid who throws a tantrum in the grocery store over not getting a candy bar (and who usually ends up with the candy bar). The kid who quits the team because he isn’t a starter. The kid (or adult) who lashes out over a stranger’s facebook post or a mean tweet. The woman who holds a grudge against a coworker for the most trivial mistakes. The man who abandons his wife because she’s no longer meeting his needs. We all want our children (and ourselves) to be strong and resilient, empathetic and kind, but instead we are petty and fragile, selfish and self-absorbed, because no one ever requires us to be otherwise. We are afflicted with comfort, drawn in by the promises of peace and pleasure, and though we have some vague sense of the danger, we do not know how to escape the trap.
There is only one way. If suffering does not find you on it’s own, which would have been unthinkable in the not-so-distant past but is now an increasing possibility, especially for children, then you must seek it out. You must submit yourself and your children to a regime of voluntary suffering. It should not be a surprise. Strengthening the soul is not so different than strengthening the body. Exercise is nothing more than voluntary suffering, pushing your muscles to their breaking point so that they may be rebuilt stronger. The pain of training is a precondition for strength. But the worst thing you can do for your body is to never use it. Too much time sitting on the couch, in perfect comfort and relaxation, never asking your body to work, never feeling a hint of strain, is a great way to become weak.
As with exercise, the goal is to stretch but not injure. The point is not to inflict maximum suffering, intentionally hurt others, or desire bad outcomes but to recognize that not everything needs to be as easy as possible, that convenience is not the goal of life. It is better to let the small difficulties and annoyances come. It is better to take reasonable risks that you aren’t sure you can handle. It is better to let your kids struggle for a time than to immediately interfere. It is better to confront misbehavior than to slip into a tranquil anarchy. Resist the temptation to flatten the ups and downs of life into a perfectly smooth ride.
You don’t have to make your kids’ lives miserable (however much they might accuse you of it). You can still give them nice things and make sure they are well fed and send them to the best schools and go on amazing vacations, if you have the means, but you must require something of them in return. Require them to pick up their toys. Make them eat vegetables in addition to french fries, and let them get their own snacks. Allow them to take responsibility for their own homework. Insist they join in family activities. Not all the time, just enough. No grand gestures or great hardship, just small, everyday reminders. Even so, I know it is hard, because they often make it harder than it needs to be. But that’s our daily reminder. We need it as much as they do. We spoil our kids because we are spoiled ourselves.
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